Money Slashed for Troops' Brain Injury Treatment

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29, 2006 — -- The head of biggest combat veterans groups lambasted congressional action that cut in half federal funding for the research and treatment of brain injuries caused by explosions, which one neurology expert has called the signature injury of the war in Iraq.

The proposed funding cut "clearly indicates that the Congress is out of touch with the realities and consequences of war," Jim Mueller, the outgoing commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a Vietnam War veteran, said in a written statement. "You either take care of the troops or you do not."

Vice President Cheney, addressing the group's national convention in Reno, Nev., Monday pledged to "enhance the respect shown by our government to veterans ... not just in words but in resources."

The Bush administration has requested $7 million in funding for the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center as it has done for the last several years, but in the past, Congress has given the center another $7 million, for a total of $14 million. This year, though, Congress has not added the additional funding.

The House passed its version of the spending bill in June and the Senate is to take up the bill when lawmakers return from their August recess.

A spokesman for the Senate Appropriations Committee said the reduction in funding from previous years was the result of spending restraints.

The center, actually a network of facilities around the country, is a collaboration between the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department. Founded in 1992, it operates at seven military and VA medical centers around the nation, and runs a civilian clinic in Charlottesville, Va.

In addition to treating combat veterans, the centers also treat other government employees, including State Department officials who have suffered traumatic brain injuries in the line of their official duties. The program also researches ways to better diagnose brain injuries.

Traumatic brain injuries result from a violent blow to the head -- what's known as a closed-head injury -- or from a bullet or shrapnel that penetrates the brain.

George Zitnay, a Charlottesville brain injury expert who is a co-founder of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center, told ABC News earlier this year that traumatic brain injury is the "signature injury of the war on terrorism."

That's because of the proliferation of roadside bombs in Iraq and improved body armor that shields troops from lethal wounds but can do nothing about the violent jolts to even helmeted heads that can damage the brain as it bounces off the inside of the skull.

As a result, more troops are surviving injuries suffered in Iraq than in previous wars, but more troops are surviving with permanent injuries. According to Pentagon data reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, only about 10 percent of wounds in Iraq are lethal -- less than half the rate in the first Persian Gulf War, Vietnam and Korea each, and a full one-third of the rate in World War II.

By one estimate, as many as 10 percent of all troops in Iraq and up to 20 percent of front-line infantry suffer concussions during combat tours.

Traumatic brain injury can have a wide range of effects. Depending on the part of the brain that's damaged, victims can have difficulty understanding or formulating speech, counting or doing simple math, or undergo personality changes.

"It is absolutely inexcusable that lawmakers would slash funding during a time of war for a research center that is earning its keep by addressing the exact types of injuries our troops are suffering," said Jim Mueller of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "This research center is an investment in the future potential of traumatically disabled soldiers. It is not an expense."